With Las Vegas summer league complete, the Charlotte Hornets are now about two months away from training camp. What will they be, minus Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb?
And what is their plan for the long haul?
I asked that question of general manager Mitch Kupchak on July 6, the day three-time All-Star Walker’s departure for the Boston Celtics became official. I didn’t get much detail in reply. Based on questions for this Hornets mailbag, fans need more than aspirations to feel good about the future:
Q. Does MJ have a plan? So much of the past 10 years have felt like poorly thought-out decisions that would not have happened if a clear plan or vision was in place.
A. I understand why owner Michael Jordan’s name comes up so much. Media and fans don’t know specifically how much or little Jordan is hands-on regarding basketball decisions. We do know Kupchak got a lot of authority in taking this job more than a year ago. So he should be answering for the design and execution of a plan.
During Kupchak’s conference call with media, I specifically asked Kupchak what the team’s plan was going forward. Here was his full reply:
“Our plan is to field a team that is entertaining, that can be sustained going forward. We strive to make the playoffs, advance in the playoffs, and ultimately contend for a championship. Thoses are the goals for the organization, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
In that same conference call, Kupchak said it was too early to say whether the Hornets are in rebuild mode.
I get it that Kupchak has time between now and training camp to pursue trades and signings, but his answers did little or nothing to address specifics to a fan base that just lost this franchise’s all-time leading scorer, a reigning All-NBA player, in Walker, and the No. 2 scorer from last season in Lamb, now with the Indiana Pacers.
Q. Other than point guard Terry Rozier, why have they not made any free-agent moves?
A. I don’t have any problem with Kupchak being a deliberate shopper in free agency now. I’d be more concerned with them overpaying for what is left on this market than not signing anyone else.
When Marty Hurney was between stints as Carolina Panthers general manager, he used to talk on radio about the mistakes NFL teams make by rushing to sign players in the first week of free agency. Maybe the best thing any NBA team can do right now is show the patience to wait for bargains.
Q. Who do you anticipate being the Hornets’ leading scorer next season?
A. I’d say Rozier, since he’ll have the ball so much, but I could see it being Miles Bridges or Dwayne Bacon.
The key for Rozier will be offensive efficiency, after he fell short of shooting 40 percent from the field in each of his four seasons with the Celtics. Adam Himmelsbach with the Boston Globe had an interesting statistic: All of Rozier’s shooting percentages — field, 3-point and free throw — improved significantly when he started.
Rozier was probably more relaxed and focused when he wasn’t wondering when coach Brad Stevens would pull him, first for Isaiah Thomas and then for Kyrie Irving. But the difference between playing in Boston and Charlotte is Rozier will get lots more attention from defenses when he’s no longer playing with Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward.
Q. Why sign Rozier when the Hornets already have two young guards and drafted another guy who Mitch Kupchak said is a “ball-handling guard?”
A. It’s a fair question whether Rozier’s three-year, $58 million contract will ultimately be cost-effective. The Hornets obviously felt a sense of urgency to replace Walker immediately when free agency started.
However, I disagree that they could have gone into training camp without a veteran point guard. Devonte Graham and Cody Martin aren’t an NBA point-guard rotation anytime soon, and Malik Monk isn’t a point guard.
They could have found a middle ground — like the two-year, $12 million contract Ish Smith got from the Washington Wizards — but the Hornets did have to do something at the most important position in basketball.
Q. How would you compare this Hornets team to the one that went 7-59? Are the Hornets in a better or worse situation than that era?
A. I’ve had fans tell me the Hornets will win only seven games next season. I don’t believe that. They will be bad, but it’s as unlikely for any NBA to go 7-75 as it is to go 75-7.
This Hornets team is more talented and experienced than that 7-59 team, which was coming off a lockout that hurt Walker’s and Bismack Biyombo’s rookie preparations (they couldn’t work out with coaches all summer or fall). However, I don’t think there is anyone who will be on the 2019-20 roster with potential approaching what Walker became here.
Q. Do you expect to see Graham and Rozier play together?
A. Yes. The question is how often.
Hornets coach James Borrego likes pairing two point guards in the fourth quarter. He did that extensively with Walker and Tony Parker (who has retired from the NBA). It was easy to trust Walker-Parker in that situation. Its more of a leap of faith to pair Rozier and Graham, both in terms of collective talent and experience.
Graham held up decently last season when asked to defend shooting guards. The question is more how well he’d shoot the ball from 3-point range, to complement Rozier as the primary ballhandler late in a close game.
Q. Chris Paul for Nic Batum?
A. I wouldn’t make that trade if I were running the Hornets, and I don’t think they’d make it.
Paul is guaranteed $124 million over the next three seasons. Batum is guaranteed nearly $53 million over the next two seasons. Obviously, Paul has accomplished more in the NBA and has high name recognition in Charlotte after starring for Wake Forest. But that’s just not a good trade, particularly after the Hornets committed all that money to Rozier at point guard.
There is a frenzy among a faction of Hornets fans to trade Batum at almost any cost. He’s overpaid, but he is still useful. He might start next season. His defense will be important on a team that will struggle to score, and his positional versatility will be handy.